This morning’s blazing sun is glistening on the muddy waters of the Mekong, evoking impressions of being in a tropical paradise. It’s tropical but it could never be accurately described as a paradise. I remind myself daily that the rewards of being here for me, really exist at least in part because I have a choice to be here and can walk away at anytime. The experience as an outside observer is profoundly different from the experience of being born into a quagmire of hunger and hardship that is the reality for those I share this space and time with. This by no means suggests that Cambodians have no fulfilment. In many ways, far more than many of us from the rich world, people here have very genuine enjoyment, from very simple pleasures. The exuberance of children here carries over into adulthood, manifesting in dispositions of good humour, honesty and openness in a spirit which is quite foreign to my stiff-upper-lip, individualistic culture.
Lunchtime yesterday, I was sitting in a shady spot reading when a crowd of small friends spotted me from a distance and suddenly I was inundated by commotion. Seven year old ordered me “Helen! Slip!”. As I pretended to sleep, five super cute midgets ran to find hiding spots before calling my name. In all the obvious places – underneath various outdoor restaurant furniture, the cab of a parked tuk tuk etc, I feigned surprise as each of them accosted me excitedly. Screams and excitement were hushed for the sake of the work meeting taking place inside a nearby doorway, although babbling children merge with humming motos, crowing roosters, hammering and buzzing from nearby construction, all of which can be disregarded when you’re used to a level of constant background commotion.
Joe’s two daughters, “Simona” (blind) and “Selena” (her older sister) are currently in hospital with Simona’s 4yo daughter who has a fever. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with a solution to the noose that is around this family’s neck. Joe and his wife are too elderly to work (plus Joe is disabled) and Simona is blind, leaving Selena the only one in a family of four adults and two children, able to earn an income. From one of the poorest villages I have visited, she works in a tobacco field, which is seasonal work due to cease sometime soon. Her twelve hour days start with a 3-30am pick-up and she earns $3 per day. For months I have been focussed on trying to conceive a way for Simona to generate some income and have hit a brick wall at every turn. Their village is so poor that there are literally no customers, even if there was something that a blind woman in this environment could offer. I have made a few suggestions now and each time the responses have been “not possible because she blind”, or “no customer”. This is the reality of what “subsistence economy” means. Small incomes allow people to access seeds and other necessities in order to grow their own rice and vegetables. Some can keep a cow or two. To be disabled in this already challenging environment is truly debilitating.
Yesterday Chom and I visited the sisters in hospital. They are effusive with me, which I’m uncomfortable about and recognise is due to their desperation to have someone who may be able to help their desperate circumstances. Chom makes a great bodyguard though, and I realise that sometimes his refusal to translate for me has to do with avoiding situations I may not anticipate, being unfamiliar with the risks associated with offering assistance to desperate people. Walking onto the verandah of the dirt-ridden hospital, Chom screwed his nose up and commented “Cambodian hospitals are so dirty”. Not to mention resource-less. In a room with bare wooden slat beds and bamboo poles for intravenous fluid bags to hang from, we sat with a small group of mothers and their unwell children. As usual Chom created a lot of boisterous laughter in the room with these strangers and I was slightly suspicious he may have been making fun of the three family members, who are all afflicted with strabismus, or lazy eye (“she looks at the chilli but she sees the cucumber – she cannot find a husband with this problem”). They were laughing along with everyone so whatever was so funny, seemed to be inoffensive. But even when it appears inoffensive, sometimes what is considered funny has shocked me!
Aware that Selena has taken time off work to escort her blind sister and niece, Chom knew I wanted to help them with a small amount of cash. “Don’t give it here, I told her we want to talk to her in private”. We said our farewells and walked outside with Selena, stopping to talk under the shade of a tree. When I reached into my bag he repeated “Don’t give it here because the other people are still watching you”. We moved out onto the street, out of view, where we had quite a talk with her. Chom said “You want to help Simona but because she is blind I think it is impossible. To help her, this is the one you need to help because she is the only one who can help her family”. Okay, so maybe we can find her a job in a restaurant? “No it is not possible because she does not know Khmer”. What do you mean? “She cannot read or write Khmer. But also she cannot speak English and many restaurant want people who know English. They will not give her a job”. Oh, so what could she do? Maybe I can buy her a sugar cane juicer? After a short conflab with her “She said no because no customer in her village”. What can she do? “She say she want to clean the rich person’s house. But I think she is no good at cleaning, she does not know how”. But she can learn? We put a plan in place to ask a local NGO who work with youth, if they could make an exception for an older person in especially dire circumstances – perhaps she could learn to cook. “Will you tell her that we are planning this?”. No because if I tell her then they will think you can help them and they will call you everyday. Wait until we can find out something first before we say anything.
Around this discussion she talked about her strabismus and how she wants to know if it can be fixed. I believe that it can be and as they are staying on the hospital grounds, now is a good time to help connect her with the Ophthalmology department, which is on tomorrow’s itinerary. I know the department because we took Simona there a few months ago to have some ocular pain assessed. The staff appeared competent and the department is supported by a number of NGOs including Fred Hollows Foundation. During this conversation the topic of finding a husband came up again. “These women, they can never find a husband because noone will marry them. She said that sometime she want to kill herself”. I touched her arm and in Khmer said she was beautiful, to which he replied in English “You are the only one to say she is beautiful, nobody else will say this to her”. That’s why you should not laugh about it with her. “No! I did not laugh about that, I was laughing because her blind sister can use the telephone but she doesn’t know how to use it. I don’t laugh about her eye because it is very sad for her and I only want to laugh to help raise her feeling and make her happy”. I was relieved to know the earlier hilarity was harmless. He’s a good guy. He then said “You should take a photograph of her and show it to your friends in Australia to find her a foreign husband?”. Suppressing amused horror I said no, in Australia we don’t do things like that. We never do that. “Oh. What about just to put it on Facebook then?”. Ummm… no! One of our more amusing culture clashes! We’re meeting them tomorrow and hope to sort out her strabismus. But “she is already 34 years old, I think it’s too late for a baby and husband”.
Meanwhile “Project Paula” continues to move slowly and surely. Toilet Project Number 2 is underway and a few other smaller projects are also playing out. Updates to follow once there’s something substantive to report.